He had not slept in more than 24 hours, and he had never felt more alone in his life. It was 6 p.m., and Branson knew it would soon be dark. He felt wiggy with fatigue. He struck himself in the face, trying to stay alert. "I knew I had about 30 minutes of fuel left," he recalls. "I stood there thinking, This is the most important decision of your life. Is there another way? I was sure I wasn't going to survive if I parachuted into the North Sea. So I stood there thinking for 10 minutes when it struck me: What the hell am I doing? I've got the biggest parachute in the world above me! In what I believed might be my last minutes on earth, I thought, Get this balloon down, and just before it hits the sea, throw yourself off." His chances of survival, whatever he did, were bleak at best. But the longer he lived, he thought, the better were his chances that something, somehow, might break his way. So he climbed back into the capsule and burned off the rest of his fuel.
Sailing along, he had no idea what was below those clouds. Finally, slowly, he descended through them and found himself falling into far more than the middle of the North Sea. "I came down in the middle of a British Naval exercise," Branson recalls. "There were helicopters all around me." As the balloon plunged toward the sea, he dived into waters so cold that he felt his scalp go numb. Minutes later he was clinging to a sling as a hovering chopper hauled him up.
Lindstrand, whose father used to make him swim daily in frigid Swedish lakes, was far better prepared than Branson to survive such an ordeal, and for two hours—until a search dinghy picked him up—he swam hard to keep his blood coursing. He nearly died of exposure.
Branson's recollection of seeing those military helicopters as he broke through the cloud cover still exhilarates him. "I was alive!" he recalls thinking. "I must be the luckiest person in the world."
How else to explain a man who formed a record mail-order business in 1970—Virgin Mail, so named because he and his associates were all virgins, at least in the realm of business—and over the next 12 years, taking on all the industry's giants, with his bankers usually in beetle-browed pursuit, transformed it into a company worth nearly $1 billion when he sold it in 1992? How else to figure a guy who launched a one-plane airline in 1984 and, in the teeth of a ruthless attack by British Airways, built Virgin Atlantic into the third-largest transatlantic carrier, with routes from London to Newark to Hong Kong? He is everywhere bucking the major players. Tower Records? There are 210 Virgin Megastores around the world, selling CDs and videos from Times Square in Manhattan to the Shinjuku in Tokyo. In launching Virgin Cola, he has taken on the mother of all behemoths, Coca-Cola. And now there are trains (he bought British Rail) as well as planes. And investment banking services. And book publishing. And hotels. And travel packages. Even bridal shops that call themselves, blushingly, Virgin Bride.
The sun never sets on the Virgin empire. Branson's holdings comprise about 150 companies employing roughly 24,000 people. His Virgin Group is the largest private company in Britain, churning about $5 billion in sales annually. As wildly rich as all this has made Branson, however—the worth of his Virgin empire is estimated at upwards of $1.5 billion—his everyday attire is decidedly middle-class (pleated khakis and a sports shirt) and his manner warm, inquisitive and gracious. He mixes with the troops wherever he goes. "He passes his energy along," says Rich Zubrod, manager of the Times Square Virgin Megastore. "But he's down-to-earth. He's like the rest of us."
"He takes tremendous risks without fear of failure," says Manhattan entertainment lawyer Elliot Hoffman, who helped Branson set up Virgin Records in the U.S. "For the most part, his risks have paid off very handsomely. He has an I-can-do-it attitude. I wasn't at all surprised that he chose to do battle with Coca-Cola. For Richard, life is not a dress rehearsal. It's the real thing."
Richard Branson is sitting on the veranda of his home on Necker Island. It is early of a Sunday last August. The morning sun is setting up its lemonade stand in the eastern sky. The sweeping veranda lies off the living room, with its beamed and vaulted ceilings and vast views of the ocean on three sides. In the distance, to the southeast, the island of Virgin Gorda rises mountainous, dressed in misty green. A wind wafts gently through the veranda, twisting the blooms of bougainvillea along the low stone wall. The sea is tranquil, doing slow somersaults at the edge of the white beaches. Terns are twisting in the gusts. The coral reef shimmers in turquoise.
Branson is eating breakfast, cornflakes and a bowl of mangoes and peaches in cream. "This is my escape from the hurly-burly life that I lead," he says. "When I'm in England, every second I'm fightingfightingfighting and competingcompetingcompeting. Can't waste a minute. Yet I can come here and chill out. I often wake up and have to pinch myself. Somebody's smiling on me. This is as near to paradise as possible. All a dream. It is my haven."
Branson was born in Surrey on July 18, 1950, and raised in middle-class comfort by two doting parents. "I was lucky to have two people who were very much in love with each other bring me up," he says. "A very close, supportive, loving family."